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  • Writer's pictureSpirited Adventures

Hydration & Water Purification Whilst Backpacking

Author: Lutz Otto


Water is critical to our survival. It is said that on average we can only survive 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.


Drinking enough water is very important for many physiological, and psychological, reasons. It allows us to digest food properly, aids in the delivery of nutrients to our cells, improves detoxification, helps us to better regulate body temperature, keeps our joints lubricated, helps prevent infections, manages blood concentration and keeps our organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated also improves our sleep quality, mood, memory, concentration ability, decision making quality and reaction time.


When we combine the volume of fluid lost through our natural body functions of respiration, perspiration to cool our bodies, urination, and sweating as result of exertion, we quickly realize, particularly in the context of the aforementioned, that we need an effective hydration strategy. This becomes even more important when undertaking physical activities such as a wilderness backpacking trail.


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Elephant facilitating water in a seemingly dry river bed.

Although life critical, the reality is that water weighs a fair amount, and also uses volumetric packing space, and consequently it is simply not possible to carry enough for multi-day backpacking trails. With this in mind, we need to obtain water from other sources, and on a backpacking wilderness safari this could include from flowing river/ stream systems, digging for water in “seemingly dry” riverbeds, building wells next to flowing water, or when water is really scarce we might even consider standing water.


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The importance of drinkable water.


Clean water is seriously a big deal. Besides taste/ palatability and aesthetic considerations, contaminated water can have very unpleasant health consequences. Water transmitted diseases, mostly stomach based, include amoebic dysentery, bilhizaria, campylobacteriosis, cholera, cryptosporidiosis, gastroenteritis, giardiasis, leptospirosis, shigella dysentery, typhoid fever and viral hepatitis. In all lower lying areas, most water sources are likely to have been exposed to some form of animal, or human activity, and we are always mindful that it could be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, industrial overflow, or otherwise.


Fortunately effective water purification is relatively easy.


Fortunately water purification on wilderness trails is relatively easy, and we have for many decades very successfully used both purpose built filters, and/ or water purification drops to keep us healthy.


Based on the time taken and the amount of fuel used in the process, the boiling of water is not considered a efficient strategy. If boiling is your only option, ensure that you bring the water to a hard boil, and then maintain this for at least 90 seconds.


Cross contamination and hygiene.


Before getting into the detail of purification it is important to understand that these process are only as effective as our personal hygiene practices, and our not cross contaminating water.


At the simplest level this requires us to ensure that our hands are clean before we start these processes and secondly, that we separate the water containers, filtration pipes etc. that are used for our purified water. Be particularly careful when using gravity feed systems, as it is easy to unintentionally allow unfiltered water to flow along the inlet and outlet pipes into the clean water container.


Chemical purification.


Drops should be a permanent part of your backpacking kit - Even if if hiking on a trail where drinking water is supplied you never know when you might need to use an alternative water source. They:


  • are effective against both bacteria and viruses, whereas filters cannot take out viruses.

  • work best when water is clear.

  • require + 30 minutes to work their magic.


Before using any such water treatment, ensure that you are not allergic to any of the content [this is especially important with iodine based drops] and unless you can find absolutely nothing else, avoid the rookie mistake of taking chlorine based water purification as your stomach biome will quickly feel unsettled. In South Africa we highly recommend the Aqua Salveo product, and are never on trail without them.

Backpacking filtration systems.


When we shift our attention to purpose built filters for adventurers, we find that the market is dominated by MSR, Katadyn, Platypus, Life Straw and Sawyer. These are generally categorized into pump, gravity, straw or squeeze filters. In South Africa we have for decades used the MSR filers, and more recently Sawyer. With regards filters remember that:


  • They take out larger particles and viruses, tbut hey cannot remove bacteria.

  • Gravity filters require less effort to operate, and are better for larger volumes of water.

  • When water is murky, they are better, from an aesthetic and taste perspective, than drops.

  • Straw filters DO NOT work for volume filtration and we do not consider the LifeStraw appropriate for our use.

  • With all filters, varying levels of maintenance are required. This normally includes back flushing or cleaning, to keep up flow rates. The dirtier the water, the faster the filter's flow rate will decrease.

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For people who do not wish to invest money into a more serious filtration system, we have for many years recommend the Sawyer Mini filter. These little units are very affordable, take up hardly any space in your pack and weigh 57 grams - This is very different, on all three of these points, to most of the other systems on the market. Filtering to 0.1 micron, they remove nearly all bacteria [including salmonella, leptospirosis, cholera and E.coli] and most protozoa [including giardia and cryptosporidium].



To improve its effectiveness, we set up the Sawyer to work through a simple gravity feed that hardly costs anything to make. We built the system with an 80cm long 20mm thick pipe, an empty two-liter soda bottle, two bottle tops and a piece of cord. Total build time is perhaps 30 minutes and its construction requires a hot glue gun, and a Dremel or soldering iron to open up the bottle top. Water flow is good, and as you are not focused on squeezing water through the filter, you are able to multi-task. It is very important for you to bring along the syringe necessary to back-flush the filter – You be surprised how much gunk it extracts.


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Other important water related matters.

Shifting our minds from purification, it is also important to consider how to:

  • Carry your drinking water on trail. Will it be in a bladder or water bottles, or a combination of the two. Although hydration bladders are amazing on short trips, they regularly burst, or break on backpacking experiences, and consequently I use them only on day hikes, or if trail running. If you choose to use one, it is critical that you have a backup water container.


  • Replace the minerals and electrolytes which your body will lose whilst perspiring as not doing this, will result in your feeling unwell and lethargic. It is absolutely worth your considering packing a mineral and electrolyte replacement product, like “Rehydrate” or salt tablets. For South African clients, remember that the product Game is basically sugar, and is not an electrolyte replace drink.


  • Balance your backpack when packing your water.


  • Store additional water in camp [cooking, etc]. Ideas can include water carrying bladders such as the brilliant MSR Dromedaries, dry bags, collapsible buckets and empty two-liter soda bottles [cheap and bomb proof].


  • Find water, and to plan routes accordingly. Further this, trail leaders should develop the skill to locate water through using natural indicators, understanding animal behavior, and understanding how topography influences water flows.


  • If venturing into wilderness, it is worth learning how to build a water solar ill and how to collect rain water or dew. In areas where it is possible to dig for water, it is important to learn where to look, and then how to build a well. Remember that as per the leave-no-trace principles, wells should always be rehabilitated after use.


  • Deal with the murky or sediment filled water [especially if needing to collect water from dams or pools].

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Indian wells as filters.


Indian wells have been used for centuries to clean water. These excellent man made bio-filters have three separate natural filter layers - Gravel [removes large solids], sand [removes small solids] and varying levels of activated charcoal [removes some microscopic pathogens]. As this filtration technique removes larger particles it makes the water look better, taste better and makes most subsequent water purification processes work better.


These system do not not filter out all micro contaminants, including many viruses and bacteria. It is thus important to note that wells dug next to flowing rivers, where the water has already passed human settlements of any sort, should never be viewed as a primary filter.



Coming full circle.


Hopefully this information helps you stay hydrated, and healthy, on trail. Hiking and backpacking, are incredibly rewarding experiences. Whether you choose to pursue this frequently, or if it is only for one trip, a good trail will imprint memories in your heart that last for your lifetime.


We look forward to spending time with you, and creating active, exciting, immersive, connective, safe and impactful experiences, that will result in your eagerly planning your next adventure on your journey home.



About this articles author: 🐾 Lutz Otto is the founder of Spirited Adventures and Consulting. He is a safari trails guide, a mountain guide, coach and leadership consultant. You can explore his bio here.


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